I’m going to mix up my fiction with some opinion pieces – perhaps once a month. Here’s the first.
If you ask someone from outside Abergavenny what they know about our town, they are very likely to mention the Food Festival held here each September. Now in its 18th year, the Festival is certainly a successful event. In 2013/14 it was Winner of the Visit Wales Best Event in Wales award. Together with a spin-off pre-Christmas event, it now reckons to bring over 30,000 people into the town each year. On the strength of this, we often hear Abergavenny referred to as a “foodie town”.
But. Actually there are several buts.
On its website the Festival says that it “seeks to contribute to the regeneration of Abergavenny and the surrounding area and to bring benefits to the wider community.” But if it does this, why do so many of our local food producers feel pushed out by those from further away? High rents for stalls in the Market Hall during the Festival mean that regular Market stall-holders often can’t afford to take part. And then there are people who live here who complain about having to pay to go into “their” Market Hall – the people who see the Festival as being for outsiders, not for them.
But there used to be an event which was very much for the people of the town. In the very first year of the Festival, on the Thursday immediately before it, 180 local people sat down at trestle tables in the Market Hall and shared a simple meal “punctuated”, as records say, “by interludes of song and speech”. As the Festival grew and became a commercial enterprise, the annual Fanfare Feast, as it came to be known, continued to be organised by a group of volunteers. The food and entertainment became more lavish, but this was still very much an event for Abergavenny folk, with up to 250 enjoying it each year. Then in 2013 paid Festival staff took it on, overstretched themselves with a lavish cocktail bar and lost money. The next year it was cancelled. The organisers justified this by claiming that local people did not attend!
So local people lost their Fanfare Feast. And when it stopped something else was lost. This used to be the occasion for the unveiling of new food-related hanging decorations in the Market Hall. Whether it was a flock of sheep, a team of pigs or a gaggle of flying chefs, people arriving for the Fanfare Feast were the first to see these unique creations. And they saw them magnificently illuminated. The team of locals who had made them each year, in a three-week extravaganza of stitching, glueing and painting, were there to receive plaudits for their handiwork. There are still decorations, but there is no unveiling, no lighting and no tangible recognition of what has been achieved.
This is not just about recognising what local people put into the Food Festival. There are now food festivals all over the UK. Chefs demos are everywhere. But those fabulous decorations are what make the Abergavenny Food Festival unique. They are part of what people love about it. And something for the people of Abergavenny to be proud of.
So is Abergavenny a foodie town? Not really. Yes, you could probably go somewhere different for coffee and cake every week of the year. But what about our local produce? The lamb from the Black Mountains? The vegetables grown by local farmers? Yes, we have a monthly Farmers’ Market but why don’t more people shop there? There are out-of-town gastropubs, but not many places in town showcasing quality local ingredients.
Eating well means eating locally-produced food. It means paying a fair price for what our farmers produce. Once a month a group of people get together in Abergavenny and prepare a meal using local, organic ingredients. About 60 people sit down to enjoy the meal and pay whatever they can afford. Any profits go to charity. At the moment this is a vegetarian occasion. But the same thing could be done using meat from local farmers. Maybe this way a new Fanfare Feast could emerge, with local people enjoying, celebrating and contributing to the local economy. And maybe this is an alternative way to be a foodie town.